Houston, Texas, USA : If you’re a parent, you may be concerned that materialism among children has been on the rise. According to research, materialism has been linked to a variety of mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, as well as selfish attitudes and behaviors.
But there’s some good news. A new University of Illinois at Chicago study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that some parenting tactics can curb kids’ materialistic tendencies.
“Our findings show that it is possible to reduce materialism among young consumers, as well as one of its most common negative consequences (nongenerosity) using a simple strategy—fostering gratitude for the things and people in their lives,” writes researcher Lan Nguyen Chaplin, UIC associate professor of marketing and lead author of the study.
After studying a nationwide sample of more than 900 adolescents ages 11 to 17, Chaplin’s team found a link between fostering gratitude and its effects on materialism, suggesting that having and expressing gratitude may possibly decrease materialism and increase generosity among adolescents.
The team surveyed 870 adolescents and asked them to complete an online eight-item measure of materialism assessing the value placed on money and material goods, and a four-item measure of gratitude assessing how thankful they are for people and possessions in their lives.
The researchers then conducted an experiment among 61 adolescents and asked them to complete the same four-item gratitude measure from the first study and an eight-item materialism measure. The adolescents were randomly assigned to keep a daily journal for two weeks. One group was asked to record who and what they were thankful for each day by keeping a gratitude journal, and the control group was asked to record their daily activities.
After two weeks, the journals were collected and the participants completed the same gratitude and materialism measures as before. The kids were then given 10 $1 bills for participating and told they could keep all the money or donate some or all of it to charity.
Results showed that participants who were encouraged to keep a gratitude journal showed a significant decrease in materialism and increase in gratitude. The control group, which kept the daily activity journal, retained their pre-journal levels of gratitude and materialism.
In addition, the group that kept a gratitude journal was more generous than the control group. Adolescents, who were in the experimental group, wrote about who and what they were thankful for and donated more than two-thirds of their earnings. Those who were in the control group and simply wrote about their daily activities donated less than half of their earnings.
“The results of this survey study indicate that higher levels of gratitude are associated with lower levels of materialism in adolescents across a wide range of demographic groups,” Chaplin noted.
The authors also suggest that materialism can be curbed and feelings of gratitude can be enhanced by a daily gratitude reflection around the dinner table, having children and adolescents make posters of what they are grateful for, or keeping a “gratitude jar” where children and teens write down something they are grateful for each week, while countering materialism.
Study : Lan Nguyen Chaplin et al. The impact of gratitude on adolescent materialism and generosity, The Journal of Positive Psychology
Research suggests grateful children are more satisfied with their lives and families, more hopeful, busier with hobbies, and do better at school, according to Giacomo Bono an assistant professor of psychology in the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He studies gratitude in kids between the ages of 7 and 18.
Bono says parents should ask their kids about the people and things they are grateful for, including the attributes of people they are thankful to have in their life. It’s also important to teach children to build strong relationships with positive people.
Parents need to set a good example by talking about the people and things they appreciate, Bono said.
It’s also important to take advantage of teachable moments.
“If there is an event in your child’s life, such as a classmate who has a sick parent, talk to your child about how lucky she is to have her health,” Bono said. “This is also a great time to practice empathy.”
He said that gratitude is the perfect antidote to the materialism and consumerism that are so common during the holiday season.
“Materialism and gratitude are like oil and water. Gratitude is psychologically fulfilling and things are not,” Bono said.
Giacomo Bono is not part of the University of Illinois at Chicago study. A separate study involving Giacomo Bono found that grateful teens may have less risk for depression and other problems.
Grateful teens may have less risk for depression, other problems
For anyone raising teenagers, the idea of helping them feel grateful for everyday things may seem like a long shot; just getting them to mumble a “thank you” every now and then can be a monumental accomplishment.
But a new study suggests that helping teens learn to count their blessings can actually play an important role in positive mental health. As gratitude increases, so do life satisfaction, happiness, positive attitudes, hope and even academic performance.
Giacomo Bono, study author and a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, said it seems there’s not much time these days for teens to pause and consider their appreciation of their friendships, activities they enjoy or even the food on the table.
But among those kids who say they feel grateful for a variety of things in their lives, Bono found an association with critical life skills such as cooperation, a sense of purpose, creativity and persistence.
“Gratefulness allows us to understand what matters most to us and translate that to a broader goal,” said Bono. He is expected to present his research Sunday at the American Psychological Association annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.
The study involved 700 students living in New York, aged 10 to 14. The participants were white (67 percent), Asian American (11 percent), black (10 percent) and Hispanic (1.4 percent), and about 11 percent were other ethnicities or did not identify their race. The researchers took into account for socioeconomic factors and parental educational attainment, but not for religious beliefs.
The study authors defined grateful teens as having a disposition and moods that enabled them to respond positively to the good people and things in their lives, Bono said.
Students completed questionnaires in school at the beginning of the study and then four years later. Bono compared the results from the least grateful to the most grateful. He found those who were among the most grateful gained 15 percent more of a sense of meaning in their lives, became 15 percent more satisfied with their lives overall and became 17 percent more happy and hopeful about their lives. That group also had a 13 percent drop in negative emotions and a 15 percent decrease in symptoms of depression.
Bono said there’s a strong link between having a sense of satisfaction with life and feeling grateful. “People who are grateful are more optimistic and hopeful, feeling they have the resources to be successful in their future,” said Bono.
An expert involved in working with teens said it makes sense that gratitude would increase a teenager’s sense of purpose in life. “I help kids become more aware of what they’re grateful for, not just in treating depression, but in materialistic, busy, media-driven lives,” said Alec Miller, chief of child and adolescent psychology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
Interestingly, socioeconomic status doesn’t appear to be linked to gratefulness. “You don’t have to be rich to feel grateful,” said Bono. “We’ve found poor kids are very appreciative when other people help them out.”
Miller agreed. “I see Medicaid kids and children from wealthy homes in Westchester County, and I don’t see any greater or lesser sense of gratitude from one group or another. It’s fairly low in both groups,” he said. “Unfortunately, our society isn’t focused much on gratefulness; it’s become out of vogue to talk about it,” said Miller. “But I give these researchers credit for reviving interest in the topic.”
Miller said he often asks kids what they’re grateful for. When they can’t identify anything much at all, he sees it as a danger sign of increased risk of severe depression and suicide. But developing a sense of gratitude in kids can help prevent the gradual erosion of self-esteem and build their sense of purpose and ability, he noted.
How can parents help instill a sense of gratitude in their children? Bono suggested parents start paying attention to their own sense of gratefulness and model it. “Talk about what you’re grateful for, and ask your kids what they appreciate,” he said. He also advised mentioning people who have helped in their lives: a teacher who stayed after class, a coach who made a difference. “Talking about gratitude helps guide us all to the things that matter most,” he noted.
Because this research was presented at a meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The research was funded by the John Templeton Foundation.